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The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking

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We live in a world where seemingly everything can be measured. We rely on indicators to translate social phenomena into simple, quantified terms, which in turn can be used to guide individuals, organizations, and governments in establishing policy. Yet counting things requires finding a way to make them comparable. And in the process of translating the confusion of social We live in a world where seemingly everything can be measured. We rely on indicators to translate social phenomena into simple, quantified terms, which in turn can be used to guide individuals, organizations, and governments in establishing policy. Yet counting things requires finding a way to make them comparable. And in the process of translating the confusion of social life into neat categories, we inevitably strip it of context and meaning—and risk hiding or distorting as much as we reveal. With The Seductions of Quantification, leading legal anthropologist Sally Engle Merry investigates the techniques by which information is gathered and analyzed in the production of global indicators on human rights, gender violence, and sex trafficking. Although such numbers convey an aura of objective truth and scientific validity, Merry argues persuasively that measurement systems constitute a form of power by incorporating theories about social change in their design but rarely explicitly acknowledging them. For instance, the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, which ranks countries in terms of their compliance with antitrafficking activities, assumes that prosecuting traffickers as criminals is an effective corrective strategy—overlooking cultures where women and children are frequently sold by their own families. As Merry shows, indicators are indeed seductive in their promise of providing concrete knowledge about how the world works, but they are implemented most successfully when paired with context-rich qualitative accounts grounded in local knowledge.


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We live in a world where seemingly everything can be measured. We rely on indicators to translate social phenomena into simple, quantified terms, which in turn can be used to guide individuals, organizations, and governments in establishing policy. Yet counting things requires finding a way to make them comparable. And in the process of translating the confusion of social We live in a world where seemingly everything can be measured. We rely on indicators to translate social phenomena into simple, quantified terms, which in turn can be used to guide individuals, organizations, and governments in establishing policy. Yet counting things requires finding a way to make them comparable. And in the process of translating the confusion of social life into neat categories, we inevitably strip it of context and meaning—and risk hiding or distorting as much as we reveal. With The Seductions of Quantification, leading legal anthropologist Sally Engle Merry investigates the techniques by which information is gathered and analyzed in the production of global indicators on human rights, gender violence, and sex trafficking. Although such numbers convey an aura of objective truth and scientific validity, Merry argues persuasively that measurement systems constitute a form of power by incorporating theories about social change in their design but rarely explicitly acknowledging them. For instance, the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, which ranks countries in terms of their compliance with antitrafficking activities, assumes that prosecuting traffickers as criminals is an effective corrective strategy—overlooking cultures where women and children are frequently sold by their own families. As Merry shows, indicators are indeed seductive in their promise of providing concrete knowledge about how the world works, but they are implemented most successfully when paired with context-rich qualitative accounts grounded in local knowledge.

51 review for The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking

  1. 5 out of 5

    Mónica BQ

    3.5 stars rounded up A truly engrossing and rare for me non-fiction read. The book talks in-depth about the dangers of making inequality, discrimination, abuse, etc. quantifiable or measurable concepts. By making them so, you essentially strip them of their essence. The author states- and I tend to agree- that it's already an act of asserting power when you turn a rape, an abduction, an act of racism, a gender pay gap or anything that abuses a position, a statistic. A number is already giving an a 3.5 stars rounded up A truly engrossing and rare for me non-fiction read. The book talks in-depth about the dangers of making inequality, discrimination, abuse, etc. quantifiable or measurable concepts. By making them so, you essentially strip them of their essence. The author states- and I tend to agree- that it's already an act of asserting power when you turn a rape, an abduction, an act of racism, a gender pay gap or anything that abuses a position, a statistic. A number is already giving an act a detached approach to it. By talking about say a percentage instead of a person with a name and age you dehumanise the acts that percentage represents. The problem is how to talk about it then. And this is why I won't rate the book higher. Because I was left with the feeling that nobody-including me- has come up with an alternative approach. I'm as dissatisfied with the current way of speaking about violent acts on a large scale as the author is. But I don't know how to do it differently.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Shelley

  3. 4 out of 5

    Donna

  4. 5 out of 5

    Chris

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kate Zen

  6. 4 out of 5

    Sean

  7. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Keilty

  8. 4 out of 5

    Carson

  9. 4 out of 5

    Tarik Olcay

  10. 4 out of 5

    S.E. Marriner

  11. 4 out of 5

    Karen Grepin

  12. 4 out of 5

    Angie Sturrock

  13. 5 out of 5

    Alyssa

  14. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

  15. 5 out of 5

    Madison

  16. 4 out of 5

    Adam Hill

  17. 5 out of 5

    Salma Said

  18. 4 out of 5

    Emma

  19. 5 out of 5

    mari

  20. 5 out of 5

    Michael O

  21. 5 out of 5

    Veronika Valkovicova

  22. 4 out of 5

    Bren

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ana

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kailin

  25. 5 out of 5

    Amy Field

  26. 5 out of 5

    Marco

  27. 4 out of 5

    Bel Ramsay

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kathy

  29. 5 out of 5

    Quin Rich

  30. 5 out of 5

    Alex

  31. 4 out of 5

    Taylor Hynes

  32. 5 out of 5

    Ethan Everhart

  33. 5 out of 5

    Bahadir

  34. 4 out of 5

    Alex Shams

  35. 4 out of 5

    Phạm N.

  36. 4 out of 5

    Anna

  37. 4 out of 5

    Nadia Seraiocco

  38. 5 out of 5

    Kimberly

  39. 4 out of 5

    mellyana

  40. 5 out of 5

    SHIM

  41. 4 out of 5

    Akshay Chougule

  42. 5 out of 5

    Jordan

  43. 5 out of 5

    Jaime

  44. 4 out of 5

    Justin

  45. 4 out of 5

    David

  46. 5 out of 5

    Cdubbzzz

  47. 4 out of 5

    Joanna

  48. 4 out of 5

    Fj

  49. 5 out of 5

    Laura

  50. 5 out of 5

    Laura Cordisco Tsai

  51. 4 out of 5

    Ada

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